The beginning of this month was marked not only by the season of Advent Hope, but by the hope made into reality of the news of the arrival of the vaccine which will protect us from Covid-19 and will enable us to experience, next year, something different to what we are experiencing now.
When Women Speak Christmas blogs in past years have given us the opportunity to explore Christmas perspectives[i] and Christmas blessings[ii]; to reflect on Light[iii] and on the qualities of Joy and Suffering[iv] which are intertwined within the Christmas Story. This year, when the Covid 19 virus brought with it fear, sickness, isolation, an uncovering of huge inequalities within individual countries, great uncertainty and even despair for the future the theme of Hope feels timely.
Hope is said to be the expectation of or obtainment of and desire for something to happen; or for something different to what we are experiencing now. This may prompt us to ask the question:
What are the desires of some of our Muslim friends?
I think of Rihab, whose 9-year-old son was diagnosed with diabetes 2 years ago and who has since been trying alternative treatments to the daily insulin injections she has to give him. Or of Naz, who was forced into an arranged marriage, suffered abuse and huge debt as a result of her husband’s alcoholism and took the brave step of divorcing him. Whilst not rejected from her community she endures the shame of persistent gossip and the subtle turning of the back when she collects her children at the school gate. She would love the opportunity to remarry, this time for love, but nothing can stop her from feeling like sullied goods. Of Eva, an Eastern European woman who married a Muslim man, but has never been welcomed as an equal amongst her husband’s friends’ wives. She stands at the outer margins of both the Muslim and the indigenous European communities – never feeling part of either.
What Jesus stories can I share with them?
The woman with the issue of blood hoped for an end to her search for healing when she reached out to touch Jesus’ cloak.
The un-named woman of ill repute with the alabaster jar was willing to brave judgment and ridicule by onlookers in the hope of receiving forgiveness.
The Syro Phoenecian woman, in engaging Jesus in conversation, despite his being surrounded by male company hoped not only for healing for her daughter but for inclusion into what she sensed, but perhaps couldn’t identify Jesus could offer.
It seems that all the above hoped for a specific response from Jesus, be it healing, forgiveness or acceptance. Jesus, indeed, responded to their courageous steps of faith and gave them more than they had dreamed possible. One woman, in being declared healed(clean) was restored to her community; another was given a place in history by Jesus; and the outsider was included into the blessing which had appeared to be unavailable to her. Things were never going to be the same again for them.
I see many of my friends reflected in the story of Jesus encounter and subsequent conversation with both the woman at the well and Mary at her brother, Lazarus’ death. They had questions to pose to Jesus as they were trying to make sense of what they were experiencing and what he was saying. These, like my Muslim friends, are women who cling on to their religious practice and understanding but their interest in returning to faith conversations we’ve had before express a hope for “more”.
Running deep through the Judeo- Christian story is the belief that another world is possible – not just in the future – when we get to heaven, but now.
If hope is the desire for something to happen; or for something different to what we are experiencing now. Biblical hope is the confident expectation of what God has promised. And this hope is sourced in the character of God – His hesed love and faithfulness. This is God who is not capricious but whose steadfast love and faithfulness wants only goodness for us:
put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption. Psalm 130:7
How do we articulate that hope to our Muslim friends – to those like Rihab, Naz and Eva – who bear the pain of daily struggle; and to Khadija, Amina and Fatima who hold tight to their tradition and yet their language belies a thirst for more? The suggestion that “a mission spirituality for turbulent times will be both praising and declarative”[v] appears to be borne out in the songs of prophecy and praise which bookend the birth narrative of Jesus in Luke’s gospel. These songs of Elisabeth, Zachariah, Mary and Simeon speak of a Saviour who comes to rescue, of One whose arm is mighty; of God whose everlasting mercy is such that he scatters the proud and raises the humble; of One who leads us from the shadow of death onto the path of peace. The sure knowledge of hope fulfilled generates a level of blessing and joy which suggests abundance.
But as we declare the Good News at Christmas let’s not forget the mode in which this Blessed and Blessing One came – in vulnerability and apparent weakness. Our willingness to be honest and open about our own stories of dependence on the goodness of God alone in the midst of our own pain and broken ness will be important. Letting our friends into the darker, more painful areas of our own lives and sharing how we have made the discovery of the treasure which is at the centre of the Christmas story: Immanuel, God with us, may be exactly what is needed to live and share the Jesus path and presence now.
This is a year when perhaps the world has been more aware of the darkness and when hearts have yearned for hope. We rejoice in the news of the vaccine which will indeed return us to the freedoms we’ve so missed. However, huge challenges remain, and the planet with all its peoples faces turbulent times ahead. Like Anna and Simeon, who lamented the darkness but looked in hopeful expectation of the coming of the light, let us choose to nurture redemptive hope and healing in the world.
(c) When Women Speak… Dec 2020
Miriam Williams: Miriam has settled in the UK but has a long experience of cross-cultural living and interaction in a range of contexts. Knowledge gained from these experiences have been brought to bear on her current work and interest in enabling faith conversations between Muslim and Christian women at grass-roots level. She is passionate about seeking to ensure inclusion and accessibility to the things that matter so that transformative spaces are open to all; and sees links here to the way we do discipling.
Photo credits: IMB.org
[v] Ian Adams in Epilogue Missional Conversations ed Cathy Ross and Colin Smith , (2018) scm press